The Indian government has admitted that nearly 330 million people, or a quarter of the country's population, are affected by drought. The federal government told the Supreme Court that people in at least 10 states face acute water shortage and scorching weather conditions.
Of the 675 districts across the country, 256 have been badly affected by drought, Additional Solicitor General P S Narasimha told the court. When questioned about the staggering number, the bench, headed by Justice M B Lokur, asked in a slightly shocked tone: "Is that not more than 25 per cent of the total population of our country?"
The matter was taken up by the top court after a non-profit organisation named Swaraj Abhiyan filed a petition claiming both the central and state governments are not paying enough attention to the dire situation.
The number of drought-hit people could be higher than the estimated figure as two vital states, Bihar, India's poorest, and Haryana, one of the two breadbasket states of India, have not yet released their status reports.
The government told the court it has allocated more than 7.32bn Indian rupees (£76.7m) to deal with the situation. This is in addition to the distribution of 12.23bn Indian rupees earlier in April 2016. Gujarat, which was declared drought-hit in March 2016, has also not yet submitted data.
The Supreme Court questioned the government over its failure to share rainfall data with the states for several months.
"The central government has a responsibility to tell states that you're headed for trouble. As the central government, you get a lot of information. Inform the states and ask them to take precautions. It's not just money, it's your duty to say please be careful, there's a drought situation," said the court.
India, a monsoon-dependent nation, has been facing poor rainfall and agricultural distress for two consecutive years. India's south-west monsoon, which irrigates more than 50% of the country's crop area, was 14% deficient in 2015, on top of a 12% deficit the earlier year. This year's monsoon is expected to be normal.